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  • Writer's pictureBrigitte Granger

Are You Afraid of the Dark? Here Are 8 Ways to Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder

a mug of coffee with a knit sweater, sugar cubes, a book and a rose

Ever since moving to Seattle, I’ve been dreading the rainy and very dark, grey season. I moved here from Philadelphia, and although I can contest that it’s not in fact "always sunny in Philadelphia", it sure doesn’t have Seattle’s reputation for rain and greyness.

I know that being at a higher latitude means that Seattle days are also shorter in the winter. On the shortest day of the year, the sun rises minutes before 8:00 a.m., setting at 4:20 p.m. The fact that Seattle is surrounded by two mountain ranges means that clouds are often trapped over the city, sprinkling the area with rain.

Of course, compared to locations at higher latitudes that can go without sun for several weeks, 8 hours of daylight is purely decadent.

I’ve been pretty concerned about the pending doom that Seattlelites have described as “many, many days without sun.” The thought alone stirs discomfort in the pit of my stomach. I’ve been warned that “half the city” has seasonal depression this time of year, although the University of Washington reports that seasonal affective disorder (SAD) prevalence actually ranges from 10% to 30%.

SAD mimics symptoms of depression, including:

  • Low energy

  • Lack of interest in activities, low motivation

  • Sadness

  • Changes in sleep

The winter blues are a less severe version of SAD, experienced among a broader group of people, especially after the holidays.

So what can you do to prepare yourself for the gloom of the cold and dark months of the year? I asked both native Seattleites and people who have relocated to Seattle from sunnier places.

Here are their top recommendations.

1. Get outside

Nearly everyone I asked said it’s imperative to get outside every single day, even when it’s dark, rainy, and you’re feeling lazy. The brisk outdoor air is refreshing. It’s like a wake-up call for your senses.

Of course, going outside to get sunlight is also key.

Sunlight is essential for regulating sleep and for getting adequate vitamin D. You may be wondering, “Should I take vitamin D supplements?” The answer is, “Maybe, and always check with your doctor.” Studies have shown a correlation of people with low levels of vitamin D and the prevalence of depression; however, supplementing with vitamin D has mixed results.

That said, going outside might not get you enough of that all-important sunlight necessary for beating seasonal depression. Consider getting a full-spectrum light therapy lamp and using it first thing in the morning to help you wake up and to regulate your sleep/wake cycle and mood.

2. Look into nature

In addition to simply being outside, experiencing the elements of nature is super important for mental health and a wonderful way to combat SAD.

A growing scientific field called ecotherapy explores the positive effects of nature on human health. It turns out that hearing, smelling, and seeing nature, as opposed to urban environments, can lower cortisol, the stress hormone.

Is the idea of being one with nature too “crunchy granola” for you? Well in fact, forest-bathing has been used for mental health benefits around the world for decades. In Japan, the practice is called shinrin-yoku, which means “taking in the forest.” In Germany, the concept of Waldeinsamkeit, which means “being alone in the woods,” is used to treat work-related stress.

an aerogarden pod of a sprouting zinnia plant
A little green can go a long way

Of course, there’s no reason you can’t bring some nature into your home as well. Taking care of a plant can cheer you up, naturally filter the air, and add some green to your home. Personally, I’ve started growing flowers in my Aerogarden in my kitchen. Checking the progress of the blooms each day is something I look forward to.

3. Cozy it up

I recently read The Blue Zones of Happiness by David Buettner and was surprised to learn that Danish people are some of the happiest in the world due to their lifestyle.

Despite bitter winters, Scandinavian people enjoy the concept of hygge (pronounced HUE-ga), which is the experience of coziness. I’ve also heard it described as “intentional coziness” or my personal favorite, “socializing for introverts.”

So how do you create hygge?

By relishing in warm, simple, fuzzy things. Think warm cups of tea (or cocoa or coffee), throw blankets, fuzzy socks, fireplaces, loungewear, candles, etc. Imagine being curled up with a good book, cooking a fragrant stew, or baking your heart out.

A key part of hygge is that it is often shared with other people (see tip 6, below). Inviting other people to partake in the warm drinks and fireside conversations are a key part of feeling warm from the inside out.

Use the opportunity of darkness outside to warm up your home with the right elements and people, and you won’t even notice the weather.

4. Make morning commitments

Waking up early when it’s still dark outside is a formidable challenge. It’s much more tempting to stay in your warm, comfortable bed rather than brave the darkness and cold outside. That said, getting up early has a ton of benefits, especially for productivity!

I’ve found that the best way to make sure you get out of bed in the morning is to make a commitment. External accountability in the form of a fitness class is very effective. I’ve been using ClassPass to try out some early morning fitness classes. Even when I feel groggy when the alarm goes off, I still show up to avoid the cancellation fee!

Morning accountability partners, in the form of fitness buddies or otherwise, are another powerful source of external motivation. A lot of people who constantly do things for others struggle to make time and energy for themselves. Having someone make sure you do things for you (like rising early) provides the external motivation to actually do it. Make plans the night before and don’t let each other flake!

Morning exercise not your thing? You can still create morning accountability that doesn’t involve fitness. For example, you can schedule an early morning coffee, breakfast date, dog playdate—whatever—with another early riser. Or plan a call with your mom.

5. Plan a warm, sunny getaway

A popular tip among Seattleites for beating the winter blues is to plan a trip to a warm and sunny locale during the dark and cold months. A trip allows you to refuel some much-needed vitamin D in addition to being something to look forward to.

In fact, Erica Mouch, a Seattle-based food therapist and non-diet dietician, says that her secret to surviving the dark season is to take a monthly trip to somewhere sunny—otherwise, her sleep suffers.

Some tips Erica offered for traveling without breaking the bank are:

  • Stay with family and friends who already live in warm places. You can save money by skipping the hotel or Airbnb, plus you get to reconnect with people you care about (see our social tip, below!).

  • Use airline deals. Erica takes advantage of Alaska Airlines’ deals during this season. Keep an eye out for sales, and you can fly on the cheap during the gloomy months. According to The Points Guy, fall and winter have the lowest airline fares, (assuming exceptions around the holidays).

  • Keep it short. If you can't afford to take weeks of time off, you can get similar restorative benefits from just a few 3-day weekends.

Work travel hack: If you’re already traveling somewhere warm for business, consider extending your trip for the weekend on your own dime for some R&R.

6. Be social

When you’re cooped up indoors or wandering the woods alone, you risk feeling lonely. Isolation can worsen seasonal affective disorder. Human connection is a key part of the human experience, and is even more vital if you’re already feeling down in the dumps.

Warm up from the inside out by socializing with some people who brighten your day, even when it’s dark and gloomy outside. Push yourself to use this time to connect with people in your life!

What are some ways to connect with people?

  • Join a bookclub

  • Schedule a coffee date

  • Host a potluck

  • Have a long catchup phone call

  • Go ice skating with a friend

  • Go out to dinner or cook dinner together

  • Gather a group for board games

  • Bundle up and go for a walk together

  • Go window shopping

  • Volunteer*

*In addition to being social, volunteering creates a “helper’s high” effect. When you do good for someone else, your body releases endorphins, which make you feel great, as well as the hormone that makes you feel warm and fuzzy. Talk about a win-win!

7. Take up a new hobby

They say you should “Learn something new every day.” In addition to making you a more interesting person, doing and learning new things also makes you feel good.

Brain research shows that novel experiences trigger the brain's reward center. Think about the feeling you get when you get to try out brand new fitness gear, or when you’ve unlocked a new level of a video game. It’s exciting!

The dark months are a great time to take on a new hobby.

A few years ago, I tried skiing for the first time. I’m not the best. Let’s be honest: it’s a stretch to call it a hobby of mine. But each time I go, I’m walking on clouds for days afterwards, proud of myself for trying something new and challenging. Plus, because skiing is only available during the winter, I now have a new thing to look forward to when the weather gets cold.

If winter sports aren’t your thing, explore indoor activities. Consider arts and/or crafts, which are typically hands-on and a refreshing break from digital devices. Adult coloring books have recently gained popularity as a relaxing activity. Personally, I love jigsaw puzzles. Origami’s a fun one. Take advantage of the darkness by taking up astronomy.

You get the idea.

8. Adopt healthy behaviors

When you feel healthy, you feel good.

Although the cold months tempt us with pumpkin spice lattes, bountiful baked goods, and weekend-long Netflix binges, neglecting nutrition and physical activity can feed into seasonal depression.

Treat your body right. Indulge in moderation, and also incorporate some healthy habits for balance.

For example, consider setting a goal to drink 8 cups of water daily. Hydration is super important because in cold, dry air, we actually lose more respiratory water than in the warm months.

We could all use more vegetables, too. Roast them up. Try to have fruits and vegetables with each meal.

Exercise releases endorphins, which make you feel happy and can help fight the winter blues. Get activity most days of the week. For bonus benefits, get active outdoors and in nature (tips 1 and 2) and invite a buddy to join (tip 6)!

In addition to your physical health, take care of your mental health too. Take hot, luxurious baths. Meditate. Play with your dog. Slow down.

Take care of your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health during the cold, dark season.

Manage your mindset

After talking about the gloomy season with several people, I’ve come to realize that mindset plays a huge role in each person’s experience of the season.

If you approach the cold, dark weather with dread, you’re probably making it worse than it needs to be. Acknowledge the season for what it is. Accept that despite your best efforts, there's still a chance you'll experience SAD and that's okay. It's a good idea to see a doctor as a precaution. And as much as possible, focus on what is in your control.

The dark and cold season offers tremendous opportunities for:

  1. Things to look forward to (trips, new hobbies, coziness, plants)

  2. Self-care (eating nutritious food, being active, getting outside)

  3. Connecting with others (scheduling coffee dates, catch-up phone calls)

As with all opportunities, you have to seize them in order to benefit. In other words, you need to take action.

Fight the winter blues by planning something today that will brighten your day during the dark season.

Want some extra accountability for taking positive action this season? Sign up for an accountability partner with Supporti today.


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